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By Mark Green on

Railway expressions: ‘Hell on wheels’ and ‘Whistle-stop’

Explore the different ways in which the railways have entered our national consciousness—particularly through language.

Lots of expressions we use today appear to have railway associations: ‘hit the buffers’, ‘wrong side of the tracks’, ‘letting off steam’ to name just a few. Railway expressions like these are not unique to the United Kingdom.

Hell on Wheels

In the nineteenth century, the transcontinental railway was built to join the East and West coast of America. As it was constructed, new frontier towns developed in America. Initially, railway workers populated these towns, and these workers had a reputation for rowdiness and vice. The towns came to be known as ‘Hell on Wheels’, because the towns arrived on the wheels of the railway and the inhabitants behaved hellishly.

A Hell on Wheels Town in 1868 (Benton, Wyoming Territory). Photo by A.C. Hull. Courtesy of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum.

One famous Hell on Wheels town was Wyoming. Newspapers evoke images of a Wild West town where gun fights and robberies were frequent. Describing the territory of Wyoming, a correspondent for the Times in 1878 stated that the:

… population of 4,000 kept up a constant saturnalia. Gaming went on night and day in places where the players relieved their thirst with liquors of the worst and most injurious character, and, when maddened with stimulants or angered at ill-fortune, these players discharged their weapons with the recklessness of a frenzied Malay.

Towns would be transported and built in a night.  Once a section of line was complete, a new town would be built ahead of the line.

Whistle-stop

Whistle-stops also had their origins in the railways of America. A whistle-stop was a small town where a train would only stop by request – the engineer would sound the whistle to acknowledge the request to stop. It can be traced back to America in the 1920s; however, the phrase became famous in 1948 with President Truman’s whistle-stop tour. Truman used the railway to rally support in towns across America. In each new place, he would stand on the balcony of his Pullman railway carriage and do a speech before moving to the next town.

President Harry S Truman (1951)

3 comments on “Railway expressions: ‘Hell on wheels’ and ‘Whistle-stop’

  1. I know that some of the construction crews of the early American railways were transported by specially built trains consisting of cars to feed, house and provide all the necessary work crew needs. One wonders if that was the origin of the term ‘Hell on wheels’ since it was moved along as the rails were laid. Somehow I cannot see temporary shanty towns qualifying as being ‘on wheels’?

    1. Mike Dench is correct. The term “Hell on Wheels” originated with the Transcontinental Railroad Construction special trains that housed the work crews, fed, etc. The term was later used to describe the tent shanty towns that popped up along the construction route. My gg grandmother and ggg grandmother were cooks on the construction crews from about Cheyenne WY to Percy Station WY. They were part of the mob that burned down the hell on wheels town of Benton Wyoming.

  2. I believe the shanty towns were so named “Hell-on-Wheels” more because of their speed of movement than physical wheels on any of the tents. They managed to keep pace when the end-of-track pretty well. The company construction trains were pretty well kept under control from what I have read.

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